Category: research

Self-enhancement and imposter syndrome: neither is good for your teaching

I read a terrific paper this week by Jennifer McCrickerd (Drake University) called, “Understanding and Reducing Faculty Reluctance to Improve Teaching.” In it, the author lists 6 reasons why some post-secondary (#highered) instructors are not interested in improving the way they teach:

  1. instructors’ self-identification as members of a discipline (sociologists, biologists, etc.) instead of as members of the teaching profession;
  2. emphasis early in instructors’ careers (graduate school, when working to attain jobs and then tenure) on research and publishing;
  3. instructors’ resistance to being told what to do;
  4. instructors’ unwillingness to sacrifice content delivery for better teaching;
  5. instructors’ momentum and no perception that current practices need to change;
  6. risk to sense of self involve with change by change by instructors

These are succinct descriptions of the anecdotes and grumblings I hear all the time, from instructors who have transformed to student-centered instruction, from instructors who see no need to switch away from traditional lectures and from my colleagues and peers in the teaching and learning community whose enable and support change.

What makes McCrickerd’s paper so good, in my opinion, is she connects the motivation behind these 6 reasons  to research in psychology. In particular, to Dweck’s work [1] on fixed- and mutable-mindsets (with fixed-mindset, you can either teach or you can’t, just like some people can do math and some can’t) and to Fischer’s work [2] on dynamic skill theory (which posits, “skill acquisition always includes drops in proficiency before progress in proficiency returns”).

I won’t go into all the details because McCrickerd’s paper is very nice — you should read it yourself. But there’s one facet that I want to examine because of how it relates to a blog post I recently read, “How I cured my imposter syndrome,” by Jacquelyn Gill (@jacquelyngill on Twitter). She writes,

I felt like I’d somehow fooled everyone into thinking I was qualified to get into graduate school, and couldn’t shake the anxiety that someone would ultimately figure out the error. When something good would happen– a grant, or an award– I subconsciously chalked it up to luck, rather than merit.

With that resonating resonating in my head (yes, resonating: I often feel imposter syndrome), I read that McCrickerd traces some instructors’ reluctance to “self-enhancement” which she describes as follows:

Most Westerners tend, when assessing our own abilities, character or behavior, to judge ourselves to be above average in ability. In particular, we view ourselves as crucial to the success of our accomplishments but when not successful, we attribute the lack of success to things other than our actual abilities.

The streams crossed and I scratched out a little table in the margins of the paper:

McCrickerd points out it is only through dissatisfaction that we change our behavior. An instructor with an overly-enhanced self sees no reason to change when something bad happens in class. “Not my fault they didn’t learn…”

And who else does a lot of teaching? Teaching assistants, that’s who. Graduate students with a raging case of imposter syndrome. When something goes wrong in their classes, “It’s my fault. I shouldn’t even be here in the first place…”

Yeah, that’s a real motivator.

So, what do we do about it.Again, McCrickerd has some excellent ideas:

[I]nstructors need to be understood to be learners with good psychological reasons for their choices and if different choices are going to be encouraged, these reasons must be addressed.

The delicate job of those tasked with helping to improve teaching and learning is to engage these reluctant instructors so they begin to look at learning objectively, then to demonstrate there are more effective ways to teach, to closely support their first attempts (which are likely to result in decrease in proficiency) and to continue to support incremental steps forward. It’s not always easy to start the process but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my job, it’s the importance of making a connection and then earning the trust of the instructor.

Now, go read the McCrickerd paper. It’s really good.



[1] Dweck, C. 2000. Self-theories: Their roles in motivation, personality and development. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis Group.

This Scientific American article by Dweck is a nice introduction to fixed and mutable minds-sets

[2] Fischer, K., Z. Yan, & J. Stewart. 2003. Adult cognitive development: Dynamics in the developmental web. In Handbook of developmental psychology, ed. J. Valsiner & K. Connelly, 491-516. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. [pdf from]

 Image “The Show Off. Part 2” by Sister72 on flicker (CC)

What's your (first) line?

RMS Titanic (Wikimedia Commons)

A friend of mine is near the end of his Ph.D. He’s at the stage where he just wants to get the damn thing done. I asked if he’d written the opening line yet and he said no, he doesn’t care how it starts.

How sad, I thought.

My Ph.D. thesis is probably the most important document I’ve ever written. I’d love to write a book some day but for now, my thesis is the top of my list. When I wrote it, I cared that some parts of it were, well, beautiful, at least to me.  The first lines of my thesis are among the best I’ve written:

A planet, a star, or a galaxy drifts through space like an ocean liner on calm seas. A ray of light, however, is tossed like a leaf floating amongst the ripples.

My research and thesis was about gravitational lensing, how rays of light from extremely distant objects are bent and deflected as they pass through galaxy clusters, and how we can use the distorted images we observe, plus some surprisingly simple physics, to reconstruct the mass distributions of those intermediate galaxy clusters. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a previous life.

This got me thinking: do other people sweat these kinds of details, like the first line of their thesis, its title, the placement of the figures, the orphaned words…like I did?

Would you help me out? Would you drop a comment sharing the part of your thesis you’re still recall proudly and fondly. Was it the first lines, the title, the acknowledgement to your supervisor, the caption of Figure 5.3? Who knows, maybe we can show today’s thesis-writers that it’s okay to spend some precious moments making their theses beautiful.

What does open communication mean to you?

I’m struggling with an issue. I can’t decide, or maybe I’m afraid to admit, if I’m being naive. Or perhaps so inexperienced, I’m blinded by imposter syndrome, the feeling that you really don’t belong in the group of experts you find yourself in. I’m hoping that by the time I get to the end of this post, I’ll at least have a better understanding of my confusion.

In a few months, there will be a Gordon Research Conference (GRC)  that I’d like to go to. It’s called Astronomy’s Discoveries and Physics Education. The theme is finding ways to use the latest discoveries in astronomy (and astronomy education, knowing the invited speakers) to motivate and enhance undergraduate physics education.

I haven’t been to that many conferences – maybe a dozen over my academic career, often by the same organizations. With my limited experience, there are 2 aspects of the GRC that are new to me.

1. Attendance by application and selection

You have to apply and then be accepted to attend. Not the usual,  accepted to present a paper or hang a poster, but accepted to be there. Kind of like TED talks, I hear. I guess that ensures that the people attending are motivated to be there and, more importantly, are sufficiently knowledgeable about the subject that they can make meaningful contributions to the conference.

2. All communication is treated as private.

This is the one that’s got me confused. By accepting the invitation to attend the GRC, you agree to their “Disclaiming Statements” which, because you can’t link directly to them, I’ll reproduce here:

To encourage open communication, each member of a Conference agrees that any information presented at a Gordon Research Conference or Gordon Research Seminar, whether in a formal talk, poster session, or discussion, is a private communication from the individual making the contribution and is presented with the restriction that such information is not for public use. Prior to quoting or publishing any such information presented at a Conference in any publication, written or electronic, written approval of the contributing member must first be obtained. The audio or video recording of lectures by any means, the photography of slide or poster material, and printed or electronic quotes from papers, presentations and discussion at a Conference without written consent of the contributing member is prohibited. Scientific publications are not to be prepared as emanating from the Conferences. Authors are requested to omit references to the Conferences in any publication, written or electronic. These restrictions apply to each member of a Conference and are intended to cover social networks, blogs, tweets or any other publication, distribution, communication or sharing of information presented or discussed at the Conference. Guests are not permitted to attend the Conference lectures and discussion sessions. Each member of a Conference acknowledges and agrees to these restrictions when registration is accepted and as a condition of being permitted to attend a Conference. Although Gordon Research Conference staff will take reasonable steps to enforce the restrictions against recording and photographing Conference presentations, each member of a Conference assumes sole responsibility for the protection and preservation of any intellectual property rights in such member’s contributions to a Conference.

(Source: follow the Disclaiming Statements link on the right-side menu here.)

Buried in the middle of this statement is a restriction on communicating any information from the conference via “social networks, blogs, tweets or any other publication, distribution, communication or sharing of information.”

In other words, I will not be able to tweet from this conference. And that’s got me, well, disturbed.

It’s not that I’ll have to disconnect my iPhone from my hand and won’t be able to follow what @RealSomeFamousPerson had for #theirmeal. Fine, whatever. I can catch up with my followers and those I follow on Twitter each morning at breakfast or evening at the pub.

Rather, it’s that as I’ve attend more conference and benefited from people I follow who share their conference experiences, I’ve learned of 2 remarkable ways that Twitter enhances my conference experience and my professional development:

  1. Twitter creates a forum for people at the conference to share ideas and reactions to the speakers. This “back channel” connects people around the room and in different parallel sessions.
  2. Twitter invites the outside community, the people not at the conference, to be a part of what’s happening there. In fact, and this is the heart of my confusion with the GRC policy, I benefit so much from following colleagues who tweet and blog their conference experiences, I feel an obligation to share the inspiration, ideas and resources that I am privileged to gather in person.

I posed this dilemma on Twitter and received replies from John Burk (@occam98), Chris Goedde (@chrisgoedde), Brian Utter (@quantumtweep), Phillip Cook (@cookp) and Joss Ives (@jossives) that helped me begin to understand the policy. Both Chris and Joss suggested that policy allows people to speak more freely and more easily share their latest ideas and results, without the fear of being scooped. I think that’s what the opening line of the Disclaiming Statement is all about: “To encourage open communication…” I get that, especially if the GRC about breaking research, which many GRC’s are. If you’ve on the verge of discovering a better way to assay your samples or process your data or distill your protein, and want feedback from your peers, then you want to keep that communication private. Phillip suggests this is pretty common with pre-published research.

I’m having a hard time applying this model to education. I suppose I’ll come away from the conference a better science education practitioner, which should cascade to my colleagues and their students. But I don’t feel like I’m doing this for me. I don’t have that killer instinct that might be necessary for academics (see “imposter syndrome”.) In my heart, I do what I do for the students (see “naive”.) Obviously I’m benefiting from this job and salary and perks (like attending conferences) but I continually filter my activities through, “Who will benefit from this?” If the answer isn’t students or their instructors, I think twice. In my mind, I can think of no better way to pique the interest and boost the enthusiasm of science educators than to share the latest discoveries, approaches and practices from the experts in the field.

Hmm, all this writing has helped. I won’t not go to the GRC because of this policy. A colleague who has an important presentation at this GRC has offered to introduce me to the organizer, Charlie Holbrow, so we can talk about the origin of the policy and the breadth of the restrictions it imposes. In the end, perhaps I’ll just have to turn off my phone. But that doesn’t seem like “encouraging open communication” to me.

Have you attended a GRC? Maybe these restrictions are relaxed or ignored. What about other professional events where communication with the outside world is restricted – what have you done before, during or after those? Drop a comment below if you have any thoughts, thanks.

Image: Communications Artwork by thomasfrank09 on flickr CC